I read a really interesting article this morning on the value of compassion; it is a great read if you’re in to psychological research, but for those of us who like to get straight to the point, I’ve pulled out what I think are the most interesting bits:
Compassion is defined by the author as “the emotional response when perceiving suffering” and as involving “an authentic desire to help”. It’s different from empathy (experiencing someone else’s feelings) and altruism (doing something to benefit someone else) because of the active desire to help others, triggered by the emotional reaction to their suffering.
There’s a lot of evidence to support the idea that compassion is an innate behaviour – that is, one that occurs naturally, rather than having to be learned. Scientists have studied chimpanzees, rats, and human babies and found evidence of compassionate behaviour in all of them. Most people will be familiar with the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, but here the article explains how the work of Charles Darwin might be more accurately described as ‘survival of the kindest’; compassion is a trait that is absolutely necessary for the survival of the human race.
As well as the obvious benefit of maintaining the existence of the the human race, compassion also has huge benefits for the wellbeing of individuals. The article describes a number of studies which show that the act of giving to others makes us feel better than receiving for ourselves. Amazingly, this even affects us on a biological level. The cells in our body often become inflamed under stress, which is something believed to be at the root of cancer and other diseases. You would expect that people who describe themselves as happy would have less stress, and therefore less cell inflammation. However, one study found that this was only true for people who lived a life of “purpose or meaning” (i.e. helping others), and that people who described themselves as happy but lived a fairly selfish life still had high levels of inflammation in their cells. And if that’s not enough to convince you – it’s generally accepted that if you’ve got high stress levels you’re going to die younger, yes? Well, not if you help people, according to another study quoted in this article. It seems that compassionate behaviour actually helps the counteract the results of stress in our bodies. Yet another study even found that people who volunteer live longer than those who don’t.
Anyone who has experienced the feelings of pleasure gained from helping someone in need will know how compassion can affect your mental health. The article speculates that this may also link to increased social connections, known to be a significant benefit to wellbeing. In fact, one study indicates that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. (Although possibly not if you’re doing all three at once..!) I think I might choose to interpret this as an excellent excuse to spend more time on Facebook..! 😉
So if you’re looking for ways to improve your life you could do worse than cultivating some compassion! I often think the world would be a much better place if we all followed the basic premise of ‘be nice to people’ – now it turns out that it’s actually good for our own physical and mental health as well!
You can get regular updates on the science of wellbeing by subscribing via the website of Emma Seppala, who wrote the original article. Or you could keep coming back here and let me put it in to bite-size chunks for you!
Happy weekend 🙂